The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

"Trailer ghettos":
The nightmare awaiting Gulf coast refugees

Sep 26, 2005

"The people we're talking about are not refugees," said George Bush, referring to the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. "They are Americans and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens."But actions speak louder than words. What kind of help does FEMA, the federal disaster aid agency, propose for hurricane victims? To set up huge, crowded trailer parks!

This obviously sounds like refugee camps. And residents of such "trailer ghettos" set up after last year's Hurricane Charley in Florida can tell a thing or two on that subject.

"It's hell," said one resident of "FEMA City," as she took her 5-year-old son for a walk in a scorching morning sun. This trailer camp, which was set up for about 1,500 residents of Punta Gorda, Florida who were made homeless by Charley, has no trees or shrubs and only two playgrounds for hundreds of children.

The situation will only be worse for the refugees of this year's hurricanes, for two reasons. There are many more of them (Katrina alone displaced more than one million people), so their trailer ghettos will be much bigger. FEMA City, for example, has about 500 trailers, but officials are talking about towns of 25,000 or more trailers along the Gulf coast. Secondly, most of this year's refugees will have very little, if any, income because jobs have disappeared along with homes.

By contrast, most of the people living in FEMA City work. But their low-paying jobs don't allow them to move out. After Charley destroyed practically all of the low-rent and public housing in Punta Gorda, landlords used the scarcity of affordable housing as an opportunity to jack up the rents. Apartments that were renting for $600 before the hurricane are now going for as much as $1,500. And in place of the affordable housing units that were destroyed, developers were encouraged to build expensive houses and luxury hotels – and given tax breaks to do so!

FEMA plans to buy up to 300,000 trailers. Of course they can provide housing for the refugees for the moment – and be very useful. IF they were used to bring the refugees back to where they came from, letting them work to rebuild the towns and cities destroyed by the hurricanes. Why not hire the refugees at decent wages and allow them to rebuild new decent and affordable housing for themselves, along with their cities?

"Love and compassion" for the victims of Katrina and Rita? Bush has none! All Bush has to offer them is to be herded into overcrowded ghettos of poverty, permanently uprooted, without the prospect of a job. That is, to be refugees in their own country.

Bush's warm emotions are reserved for other people: his rapacious corporate buddies – the Halliburtons, the Bechtels, the developers of luxury hotels, casinos and mansions.

Back at FEMA City, Florida, residents are required to vacate the trailers by Feb. 13 according to federal regulations. "We've got old people, we've got a lot of new babies. Where are they supposed to go?" said one teenage resident. "Personally, I think there will be riots here if they try to evict people."Yes, anger can explode into riots and it should. But the refugees linked to these hurricanes – whether Charley or Katrina – can also organize themselves into a powerful social and political force, forcing the government to give them the opportunity to rebuild their lives.